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Glimpses of a New Rhythm: Understanding the Process of Grief for Our Tweens and Teens

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I’m getting glimpses of a new rhythm pitter patting around the corridors of my home. Are you?  The tempo has changed. The pitch has lowered by a few octaves. There is a repetitive, somewhat comforting pulse that is beginning to flow.

I’ve been counting on us growing into this isolation thing. Very few of us had all the skills needed to embrace this difficult time, but that’s what makes human beings so amazing – our ability to adapt and grow.  That is what we do best when we are under pressure.

However, this is the rub.

Adapting is EXHAUSTING – it’s mentally and emotionally taxing. It’s no minor, trivial side task.

The stages of grief have long been referred to as a guiding in challenging times.  And although these stages aren’t experienced in a linear order (…and there is no guarantee a person will experience all of these stages), they do represent a shared experience that can unite us in times of distress.

By understanding the stages of grief, we may be able to pre-emptively make more room for each one of them in our hearts.  We may also be able to bring meaning to our own behaviour and the behaviour of others.  If we can explain a teenager’s need to stay up all night, or our urge to control the most insignificant of details, it might help. That stuff matters right now.

And if by understanding we can turn towards acceptance a little quicker, then maybe (just maybe) we will be able to surrender to our ability to reconstruct something wonderful and life giving from this experience. 

Stage 1:  Shock Stage

I can remember first hearing about COVID-19 and my own children insisting that it was a cold, accompanied by a lot of media hype. I can remember the words, “Settle down mum” used more than once. Despite the facts stacking against them, they were dismissive.  Looking back, I can see that was denial, a shock reaction which actually temporarily helps us cope with change.


Denial causes us to insistently cling to what was. Perhaps that is why during big times of crisis, we find such comfort in the familiar and the predictable. It anchors us and makes broader changes so much easier to deal with.  

Take away point:  Routine is a safe place. The predictable is an anchor.


Stage 2: Resistance Stage

Once life as we knew it started to change, denial wasn’t a strategy that was going to work anymore.  My son’s university closed. My youngest was out of work. I was “working from home” and more importantly, couldn’t find toilet paper!

We all leaned into the situation a lot more. But the more I leaned in, the more frustrated I got. How could this be happening?  Who is to blame?   What’s the quickest way to stop this?  Can’t everyone just get out of my space?!

Grief often wears a disguise. It can sound angry, fierce, irritable and grumpy.  It can bring out the worst in all of us.  I witnessed grief as people fought over groceries. I witnessed grief as my son needed “space”.  I witnessed grief as I lost my temper.  

It’s good to know that anger is often accompanied by other psychological symptoms like not being able to sleep or eat.  During times when we didn’t foresee a trauma, anger is likely to surface more significantly.   

Take away point:  Don’t be afraid of others big feelings.  Meet them with compassion.

Stage 3: Bargaining

When anger doesn’t work, we might try negotiating.  We might try to frantically search for a way around a situation. My guess is that many, many children have tried to bargain their way out of the new physical distancing rules.  Can’t I just go over my mate’s house once?  Surely, I can still play football in the park?  Will you let me out if I take hand sanitiser?  

Young people have an inbuilt need to deeply connect with each other and the world around them. It’s a driver, an essential for their development.  So, in this circumstance, saying “no” to things that are healthy and good for them is very tough.  None of us were expecting to have to do that.  Parenting is hard, but we didn’t sign up for this bit.

Take away point:  But there is more….When reality won’t move, we have to move. This is where the magic happens.

Stage 4:  The Low Moment

When the true reality of a situation feels like an immoveable roadblock, we get really sad.  The transition from anger to sadness is actually a significant one.  Sadness opens way for us to question our capacity.  We might ask – How long will this feeling last? Have I got what it takes to get through it?  These questions can lead to glorious answers.

During this stage we start to accept the depth of our loss.  At times it might hit us like a wave of despair. Young people might feel beyond sad that Year 12 experience won’t be as they planned.  Adults might grieve the loss of a business that they love.  When you stare loss in the face, it is heart-wrenching.

Take away point: In the darkest of places, we surrender.

Stage 5:  Surrender, Acceptance and Hope

This week felt different in my home. There was a symphony of different rhythms being played. For me it has been nightly card games, video calls to friends and long, long hours of writing late into the night.  For my sons, it has been afternoon backyard cricket, late night gaming, cooking at 10pm (yes or later!) and random creative projects. This can’t happen unless each person has moved one step further towards acceptance.  Only after we surrender can we start to reconstruct a new reality.  

What helps brings a new rhythm?  

Time and trust.

Trust, in the innate process of grief that is designed to combats intense feelings of loss.  Trust, that even though the road is hard, it is worth travelling. And trust, that growth is happening although it is never realised in the moment. 

Take away point: We can’t transcend anything that we don’t accept, but with acceptance comes transformation.

Concluding Thoughts

Right now, our homes are experiencing collective and individual responses to loss, and with that comes a need for both togetherness and autonomy. Times of collective joy and sharing, as well as periods of time apart are characterising many households…and that is a good thing right now.

We can look after our mental health by giving ourselves, and our dear tweens and teens, breathing room to “be with” and process their unique responses to this moment of crisis. A delayed grief response, or the suppression of grief, is something I’d like to see us avoid. Let’s follow the internal tug to allow room for big feelings.

Meaning is on the other side.

RECOMMENDED READING: You might also like, Everyday Resilience: Helping Kids Handle Friendship Drama, Academic Pressure and the Self-Doubt of Growing Up and The Everyday Resilience Journal for Tweens.

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